2021 Yearender: Ethiopia in Yugoslavia’s footsteps

Haitham Nouri , Friday 31 Dec 2021

If Ethiopia continues on the path of war, it will not only see one of the world’s worst famines but a dark fate of disintegration

Ethiopia in Yugoslavia s footsteps
photo: AFP

Less than two years ago Ethiopia hailed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for winning the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for his “brave” moves to effect peace with archenemy Eritrea and the “democratic” measures encouraging exiled Ethiopians to return to their homeland.

Below the surface, however, ethnic and social tensions were brewing – reaching boiling point, even – when Ahmed’s government launched a campaign against what it claimed was “corruption”. The majority of the victims of this campaign were from Tigray, a group that had remained at the helm of the state for three decades, until Ahmed assumed the position of prime minister in April 2018.

The rapprochement with Eritrea was a step to tighten the noose on the Tigrayans. Many observers had noted that the 1998-2000 war between Addis Ababa and Asmara was in fact a conflict between the Tigrayans and their late leader Meles Zenawi on one side and the Eritreans and their leading figure Isaias Afwerki on the other.

Two years after that peace accord, the Tigrayans have been reiterating the idea that their expectations had been spot-on: Ahmed and Afwerki were not seeking peace as much as they hoped to strike an alliance against Tigray.

Four years into Ahmed’s rule, Ethiopia turned from the country with the highest growth rates in Africa south of the Sahara to a troubled country enduring a large-scale Civil War and threatened with fragmentation and famine.

Is Ethiopia following in the footsteps of the former Yugoslavia?

In November 2020 Ahmed waged war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – the ruling movement in the northern region – after Tigrayan elements launched an attack on a military base.

Ahmed’s father belongs to the Oromo which comprises 34 per cent of the Ethiopian population, while his mother hails from the Amhara which make up 27 per cent of Ethiopia. At the beginning of his rule, he had the support of both ethnicities, but siding with the Amhara made him lose ground with the Oromo.

The prime minister’s army didn’t have the capabilities to confront the Tigrayans – seven per cent of the population – who throughout their 30-year rule comprised more than one-third of the officers in the army. Today, these officers are fighting in the ranks of the armed opposition.

Since the war broke out, Ahmed depended on the militias hailing from the Amhara, Afar, and to a lesser extent from Oromia regions. This formation pitted the Tigrayans against not the army but the rest of Ethiopia’s ethnic groups.

A large number of Ethiopians volunteered in the ranks of the Amhara to join the war against the Tigrayans, proving the popularity of Ahmed’s government.

Such massive support for Ahmed and the local militias complicated the mission of Tigray and its allies to march on Addis Ababa, although they were able to approach the Ethiopian capital and were stationed 400 miles from its outskirts. The Tigrayans threatened to cut off the main road and railways connecting the capital and the Djibouti Port, Ethiopia’s principal gateway.

Despite Ahmed’s popularity, his alliance was fragile, much like the state of the Tigrayans.

The Oromo and Afar groups that support the prime minister don’t trust the Amhara who want to see Ethiopia return to the pre-1991 status quo, when Ethiopia was a central state with one main language, the Amharic, one main religion, the Christian Orthodox and a church governed by the Amhara.

That state of affairs was not so different in Tigray. The TFLP doesn’t trust the regional government following decades of the latter’s unfulfilled promises of making the country more democratic and less hegemonic.

Moreover, the Tigrayans were in two minds about deciding the fate of their region; they were not decisive about remaining part of Ethiopia or seceding.

The recent “victories” Ahmed’s forces achieved after he joined the troops on the battlefield forced the Tigrayans to withdraw to their mountainous stronghold in the northernmost part of the country to prolong the war and conduct attrition attacks to bleed out the Amhara and Afar forces, and more importantly to be able to fend off a possible attack on their regions by the Eritrean army.

This was not the first time the Tigrayans retreated. Their spearheading figures withdrew from Addis Ababa and barricaded themselves in the north when Ahmed launched a campaign against them in mid-2018, ahead of a confrontation both parties knew was approaching.

It appears the Tigrayans’ withdrawal will tip the scale in favour of those supporting the region’s secession. The country’s conditions have differed immensely from the 1990s, ushering in a new chapter of conflicts.

If the Tigrayans seek to secede, they won’t be the first group in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Somalia region has sought either secession with the Ogadin region or to be annexed to the greater Somalia.

Meanwhile, Asmara will not rest assured until it sees Tigray growing weaker. This could drive it to attempt to wage another war in the region, but then the move will cost the Eritrean capital dearly no matter how many war crimes its soldiers commit.

During the first months of the war, the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments denied Asmara’s forces were fighting against the Tigrayans. Later, however, they admitted it. UN and Western reports came out accusing Eritrean soldiers of committing rape and looting during their participation in the war.


 Although Yugoslavia was for decades the most successful model in the Eastern bloc under the leadership of late leader Josip Broz Tito, it witnessed ethnic conflicts following his death in 1980. Many observers fear that Ethiopia will meet the same fate. The two countries share some characteristics, but differ in others.

Both are multi-ethnic federations, and the Communist League – very similar to Ethiopia’s People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front – ruled Yugoslavia for about 50 years until its dissolution in the mid-1990s. The federation in the two countries contributed to alleviating ethnic tension, by allowing each nation to have autonomy. Over time, ethnic tensions were further fuelled by local institutions and regional geography.

The two countries witnessed political transformations: Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and Ethiopia under Ahmed’s rule. In both cases, questions were raised about the future of the economic and political system. This transformation made the Serbs in the army and the state lose their power, as has been the case with the Tigrayans. In the two countries, conflict arose from a strong desire to re-establish the state on a central rather than federal basis, depriving the smaller ethnic groups of gains previously made.

Unity in Ethiopia is stronger than in Yugoslavia, but it is not without flaws. The Ethiopian regions are controlled by conservative forces that prevent law enforcement and shelter criminals in the areas under their control.

The freedom enjoyed by Yugoslavia after Tito’s death produced a national struggle fuelled by memories of the heinous crimes committed during World War II and the Yugoslav struggle against Hitler’s Nazism. This is not the case in Ethiopia, where everyone boasts of standing up to the Italian occupation 80 years ago. In Yugoslavia there were collaborators with the Nazis. The Croats even re-established a ruling party inspired by the principles of Croatian fascism, or Ustashi.

The Ethiopian regions were not a state, in the modern sense of the word, until the establishment of the Ethiopian empire in the late 19th century. The Serbs and Croats, meanwhile, had their own countries before the establishment of the Yugoslav state.

Despite the association of small ethnicities in Ethiopia with neighbouring countries, such as the Gambella region of the rival Dinka and Nuer groups in South Sudan and Somalia with Somalia, the larger ethnicities cannot be manipulated by neighbouring countries. For example, the Oromo is the largest ethnic group in the country and it shares no borders with any country, except for a short strip with Sudan, which makes it less prone to foreign interference.

Ethiopia is the size of almost all of its neighbouring countries combined. In fact, its neighbours include failed states such as Somalia, very small countries that do not affect Addis Ababa, such as Djibouti, or poor countries whose people are on the verge of famine, such as South Sudan. On the other hand, influential European countries, such as Italy and Germany, did interfere to stop the disintegration of Yugoslavia.


 There are strong factors at play in favour of Ethiopia’s unity. Transformations in ethnic communities, however, can be a source of menace because a newfound freedom of expression may help one group to monopolise power and incite against suppressed injustices.

Ethiopian politicians are increasing the tone of polarisation, not unity, because this allows them to control the ethnicities from which they hail by spreading fear and hate speech.

More often than not, parties are founded on ethnic basis. In fact, cross-ethnic political movements are mostly described as foreign agents that work to destroy a certain group.

Ethiopia is in peril and its disintegration will not be in favour of the fragile region of the Horn of Africa. Nevertheless, the majority of the Horn countries fear the notion of a large, united Ethiopia that constructed many dams on rivers, causing much damage to herding and agriculture in neighbouring countries.


The majority of observers of the Ethiopian conflict agree that “there is no military solution to the war,” but Ahmed’s government does not share that opinion, wanting instead to “bury our enemies… to revive Ethiopia’s glory.”

Ahmed’s government turned down international mediation to stop the war, turned its back on its Western allies, and started importing weapons from China, Russia, Turkey and Iran to arm its militias fighting against the Tigray and Oromo.

Ethiopia is supported by a strong Eritrean drive to destroy its historical enemies, the Tigrayans. However, the government wants to clear the air with Sudan regarding the Fashqa region. After all, Addis Ababa can’t engage in two wars at the same time. It realises this could only spell its fragmentation.

Sudan has its own concerns as well; it fears a large-scale wave of refugees that will increase its burdens and enflame an already tension-laden region even further.

Kenya fears that the situation in Ethiopia will worsen, resorting to mobilising its forces on the borders between the two countries. However, Kenya is suffering from the drying up of Lake Turkana, whose water level has decreased by more than a metre since 2016, due to the operation of the third Gebe Dam on the Omo River, which flows into the lake. This drought has meant the exodus of thousands from Kenya’s cities, and thus more political tension and violence.

Somalia fears Ethiopia’s withdrawal from the African peacekeeping forces combating Shabab Mujahideen terrorism, which threatens the escalation of terrorist operations in the country, which has disintegrated since the fall of the rule of General Siad Barre in 1991. Mogadishu fears Somali nationalists will drive it to a war in Ogaden or Somalia regions while it is ill-prepared.

South Sudan, which used the Gambella region as a rear base in its conflict with Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s, fears waves of migration and being drawn into the conflict between the Dinka and Nuer.

However, all of Ethiopia’s neighbours cannot pressure Addis Ababa to negotiate to stop the war that may result in one of the world’s worst famines.

As far as Western powers are concerned, they are facing pressure from European and US aid organisations that have been warning of the worsening of the famine created by Ahmed’s forces due to their burning of crops, preventing humanitarian aid from reaching Tigray, and the wave of rape crimes that forces entire families to flee to areas where survival is impossible without aid.

Western pressures, however, are not yet serious enough. World governments and international aid organisations are busy with several man-made famines in north Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and north Syria.

The Tigray famine will nonetheless be the worst, just as was the case in 1983.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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